The advent of the internet has, without a doubt, forever changed the face of digital content, whether it’s movies, music, eBooks or games. Providing creators with a radical new way to instantly publish content and have it reach huge audiences globally is a vast improvement on traditional retail distribution. However, it’s also a nightmare where piracy is involved: the digital nature of their content means that creators are effectively helpless against parties illegally distributing their materials.
The issue, clearly, is that existing content protection methods simply aren’t up to the challenge. It’s trivial for a pirate to duplicate a file and scatter it across a number of mirrors, so that shutting one site down will have little impact. Most understand, however, that such activity is detrimental to the income of producers, and thus to the industry as a whole. Evidently, a better solution is crucial to ensure the long-term viability and thriving of digital content.
Many are quick to point to blockchain technology, which is misconstrued as a sort of magic wand that can instantly solve all of the world’s data issues. I’m a strong proponent of the blockchain offering, but I feel it’s important to recognise its limitations (which are fairly major, given some of the proposed use cases).
Firstly, blockchains are terrible storage devices. They’re slow and lack the throughput required for even the smallest of files (uploading data into the network is possible, but anything beyond a simple monetary transaction quickly becomes extortionately and unsustainably expensive). For most blockchains, the system is specifically designed to deter activity which may result in congestion (remember that every node must store a copy of the chain indefinitely).
Assume, however, that a party was determined to spend billions uploading digital content into the network. You then run into another problem altogether: that of privacy (or lack thereof). Simply put, there is none.
Unless you run a permissioned or private setup (which defeats the purpose), you’re relying on an openly-auditable and fully transparent public blockchain. Any onlooker can see content, where it’s been, and who currently owns it.
That’s not to say they don’t have a place in content protection. On the contrary, I think blockchain is vital to leaving behind the current model in favour of a superior one – not as a standalone solution, but as part of a suite of technologies. What’s interesting about a distributed ledger is that it effectively acts as a settlement layer, and allows for the scripting of complex smart contracts that can interact with layers built on top of the main chain (preventing congestion).
Of particular relevance in content distribution is the combination of these smart contracts with off-chain storage volumes (as is possible with tools like IPFS). Containers that are both private and cheap can be easily set up, and their address stored in a smart contract, which can in turn be configured to grant access to individuals having paid a set amount of tokens to it. A number of other parameters can also be set to tailor the terms to the creator’s liking.
As well as acting as a deterrent to non-paying individuals, and better protecting the content, this sort of system also tackles another problem in the industry – that of third-party involvement.
Giants like Spotify, Deezer and Netflix are a great way to reach audiences, but also take fees that cut into producers’ royalties considerably. However, many are left with little choice due to the lack of alternatives. With a blockchain-based platform, however, the focus shifts from reliance on companies to a self-sovereign distribution system.
Blockchain technology has certainly captured the limelight, and for good reason: it provides a highly-transparent and immutable ledger of transactions occurring across the network. It has a wealth of use cases, but it’s important to understand that these use cases can only be achieved by combining it with off-chain solutions to avoid inefficiencies and to ensure confidentiality for sensitive information. Paired with storage solutions, a radically improved digital content management and distribution platform is poised to revolutionise the industry.
Michael Smolenski is the CEO and founder of Lightstreams, a blockchain based network with an authorisation protocol for controlling access to data. This specialised blockchain that allows users to granularly control access to information and intellectual property stored on it. Unlike standard blockchain technologies, Lightstreams can store information absolutely privately. After stints at Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, Accenture, Westpac Bank and London Stock Exchange, Michael is joining a growing group of Goldman Sachs alumni on the blockchain tech frontier. A former Goldman Sachs software engineer and solutions architect of Westpac Bank’s online payment systems, Michael also took charge of the trading upgrade of the London Stock Exchange. His award-winning protocol for smart contract confidentiality, called Permissioned Blocks; is now at the heart of his blockchain startup Lightstreams — having won the Blockchain Hackathon award at Consensys 2017. Michael was also the runner-up at the Santander Bank Global Distributed Ledger (Feb 2016) competition for a Real Estate blockchain concept called Midasium, and a finalist in the Citibank Mobile Challenge competition in 2015.